Second semester is drawing to a close, and subsequently many seniors’ response to “How’s it going?” has turned into something along the lines of, “Comps are killing me.” While finishing up the test, project or essay that constitutes a senior capstone exercise — more commonly known as “comps” — can be a bonding experience for the senior class nearing graduation, there are some serious flaws to Kenyon’s system of examination. The way that students are evaluated varies greatly across majors. Senior exercises need to become more standardized across departments, because as it is now, many students suffer through the experience more than others do.
For one, most senior exercises take place at different times during the year. Philosophy majors had to be prepared to take their comps as early as September of their senior year. Economics majors had to be prepared to take their comps one week after arriving back to campus from winter break, on Jan. 23. Other majors, like psychology, do not turn in their senior exercise until the end of April or the beginning of May. While there are pros and cons to getting your examination over with or having more time to work on it, the end result is that it is not an entirely fair experience for every senior.
Moreover, the material covered by comparative exams varies from major to major. Some departments, like political science, base their exam on courses that every major is required to take. With different professors teaching these classes and students taking them at different points within their Kenyon career, there can be a major lack of uniformity across students’ experience learning the material and their mastery of such subjects. Especially in light of COVID-19 with many students taking a semester or year off, some may have taken classes at other institutions where expectations or course outlines varied. Transfer students who use credits from their old schools towards these requirements might run into a similar predicament.
As a Collegian staff editorial pointed out in 2018, comps also come at a time in one’s Kenyon career where many students are trying to plan for life after they leave the Hill. That process looks different for everyone. Application cycles for graduate school vary across programs, and many jobs have deadlines at different points throughout the year. Students for whom these deadlines may fall in the midst of the comps grind are at a disadvantage trying to spread their time across important post-grad applications as well as their senior exercises.
Mostly though, the biggest issue with comps is the difference in requirements across various majors. According to the Department of Sociology’s website, senior sociology majors are required to write a four-page project proposal followed up by a 15-minute research presentation on a topic of their choosing. Because of COVID-19, this year’s and last year’s sociology senior exercise was changed to a five- to seven-page reflection on their experience within the sociology major.
On the other hand, physics students have to take four exams that correspond with the physics introductory sequence, as well as present a 25-minute public presentation followed by an interview by faculty members. While these are two differences between departments, requirements also vary within departments, like music and studio art, with majors within the same discipline having to complete vastly different exercises to receive the same degree.
I don’t use any of these examples to target any one major — only to say that when the means by which we are tested are not uniform, students do not get to have an equal and fair senior year experience.
One easy way to make the experience of comps more uniform might be to have them all be due at the same time. Another might be to get rid of timed exams, which, for many students, are not effective ways of testing one’s knowledge. Sure, the old adage is true that life is not always fair, but a Kenyon experience is supposed to be a shared one — by which we complete similar tasks to receive a similarly meaningful degree. As things currently stand, with senior capstone expectations varying so greatly, I’m not sure we can say this is the case.
Mary Hester is a political science major from Bloomingdale, Ill. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.